Terminology Tuesday: Mutual Aid

Israel’s practice of mutual aid was mandated systematically in God’s commands to remit debts every seventh year and celebrate Jubilee every fiftieth year (see Deut. 15; Lev. 25) so that there “be no one in need among you” (Deut. 15:4). Forgiving debts marked community renewal in Israel’s postexilic restoration (Neh. 5). This was Israel’s systematic practice of justice that ensured the community’s shalom.The Lord’s Prayer includes forgiveness of debts (Matt. 6:12).

The early Christian church exemplifies two models of mutual aid. After Pentecost the believers had all things in common (Acts 2:42–45; 4:32–37). A second and more durable model of mutual aid consisted of collecting money from wealthier Jewish-gentile Christian churches throughout Asia Minor and Macedonia for the poorer Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Paul speaks extensively of this relief gift (2 Cor. 8–9), grounding it in “the grace given me by God” (Rom. 15:15). Paul prays that this “offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16).Both groups, the Jerusalem poor and the gentiles with material resources, give and receive (Rom. 15:25–27). Justin Meggitt says of this mutuality.

Firstly, it was aimed at promoting material well being. It was initially undertaken to achieve a tangible end: the relief of the economically poor in the Jerusalem church…. Secondly, it was thoroughly mutual in its character. It was in no sense an individual or unilateral undertaking for any of those involved. Paul emphasises that all the members of the church were contributors as, indeed, were all the communities (we hear of no exceptions). It was not intended to be the work of a few wealthy members or congregations. And it was premised on the assumption of mutual interdependence. It was not a one-off act of charity. The material assistance given was understood as something that would, in time, be returned, when the situation was reversed. (Meggitt 159)

Paul died for this cause (Acts 21:7–14). His relief gift crowned his mission, exemplifying gentile and Jewish unity in Christ. Mutual aid, with charity, continued in the early church through deacons (Acts 6:1–6). “In A.D. 251, the church in Rome had a massive program of care for the widows and the poor. The church … had 1,500 people on its roll for support. Bishop Cornelius was aided by six presbyters, seven deacons, seven more sub-deacons, and ninety-four people in minor roles” (Swartley 32). Church fathers speak of mutual aid and charity, grounded in creation, redemption, koinonia, and justice (see Swartley 29–34).

Mutual aid and charity continued in the church, with growing institutionalized forms. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists practiced mutual aid at the cost of life, especially for those “on the run” to escape persecution (see Jeni Hiett Umble, John D. Roth, and Mary S. Sprunger in Kraybill and Swartley 103–67). In the twentieth century, many Protestant denominations, including Mennonites and Brethren, combined mutual aid with insurance (property, auto, and health), which with high cost and exclusions compromised mutual aid, thus raising irresolvable ethical dilemmas.


Kraybill, D., and W. Swartley, eds. Building Communities of Compassion: Mennonite Mutual Aid in Theory and Practice. Herald Press, 1998; Meggitt, J. Paul, Poverty and Survival. SNTW. T&T Clark, 1998, 157–64; Swartley, W. “Mutual Aid Based in Jesus and Early Christianity.” Pages 21–39 in Building Communities of Compassion: Mennonite Mutual Aid in Theory and Practice, ed. D. Kraybill and W. Swartley. Herald Press, 1998.

Swartley, W. M. (2011). Mutual Aid. In J. B. Green (Ed.), Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (p. 534). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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